Madonna House 1970

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Madonna House is located in Combermere, Ontario between Bancroft and Barry’s Bay on Highway 62. It was founded in 1947 by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, her husband Eddie Doherty and Grace Flewelling. According to the January-February 1986 edition of the Catholic Worker newspaper, “It is a community of laymen and women and priests who live a very simple, at time rugged, common life of work and prayer. Madonna House has also founded twenty small communities throughout the world dedicated to serving the poor. Over the years it has become a center of renewal for lay people and religious.”

Catherine De Hueck was born and raised in Russia. She and her family were caught up in the Russian Revolution on the losing side and she and her first husband immigrated to Toronto as refugees a few years before she moved to the United States. During the Depression she founded Friendship House in Toronto where she and others “fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless”. During this time she met Dorothy Day and distributed Dorothy Day’s newspaper, “The Catholic Worker”, in Toronto. In 1936 Catherine closed the Toronto Friendship House and left for New York City. She took a job as a reporter in New York and was sent to Europe to cover the Spanish Civil War. Upon her return from Portugal in 1938 she founded an interracial Friendship House on 138th Street in Harlem. Stanley Vishnewski of the Catholic Worker, then twenty years old, helped her get the house up and running. In addition to feeding the poor, she pressured Catholic schools to accept black students, mostly without success. In the mid-1940s she had a dispute with the other residents at Friendship House and left for an affiliated house in Chicago.

In 1947 she and her second husband moved to the Ottawa Valley where her cousin had property. There they founded Madonna House. Madonna House is a working farm with an emphasis on hand-crafts. The community keeps bees, a small herd of milk cows and a large garden. The Baroness or the “B”, as her friends called her, taught knitting, weaving, embroidery and book-binding to the young people who came to live at the farm. The Baroness also wrote numerous books on Catholic spiritual life always with an emphasis on discipline and commitment to the poor and the spiritual benefits of poverty. Madonna House became a retreat house where Catholic lay people were trained for the lay apostolate.

When Philip and Mary visited Madonna House in March 1970 they were welcomed and introduced to the Baroness, offered food and given a place to stay for the night. A priest who was staying at the house gave them a tour of the kitchen, the dormitory, the workshops, the farm and the community’s chapel. The chapel was built of logs and polished pine in a Russian-style and was decorated with Russian icons. The next day participants in an Easter retreat were expected to arrive and so there was no room for Philip and Mary to stay a second night. The priest accompanied them to a nearby hippie commune called Sacagawea. The community at Sacagawea lived in two adjoining farms. Both were old farm houses that each housed a number of young people. Someone had built a geodesic dome near the farm house at Sacagawea. The community moved into the farm house in November 1969 and had little time to prepare for the coming winter. In March the snow was still two feet deep and the two communes were joined by a narrow path in the snow that had been tramped down by the passing of many feet. The path led over an open field.

The contrast between Madonna House and Sacagawea was stark. Whereas Madonna House, although professing poverty, was well-ordered, well-built and clean, Sacagawea was truly improvised. Meals consisted of whole grains purchased in bulk and vegetables stored in the root cellar. The vegetables had been donated by friends in the neighboring commune. The farm house had not been renovated and was drafty and cold. The furniture was worn-out and the house was over-crowded. Nevertheless the hippies at Sacagawea offered the travelers hospitality and a place to stay the night.

The next day Philip and Mary drove to Barry’s Bay where they located the cabin belonging to two Ragnarokr alumni, Barry and Susan Woolaver. Barry took them to see two abandoned farm houses that were available for purchase. On March 27, 1970, Philip described these two farms in a letter to his brother George. The letter has been copied and placed in the file “Letters to Mud Farm.”

The community at Madonna House continues to operate. Catherine Doherty died in December 14, 1985 in Combermere but the work she began continues. The hippie community near Killahoe was also still alive and well in 2000.

Use this link to return to the narrative, The Back-to-the-land Movement, February 1970-September 1970

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